Sitting on her father’s lap, in front of their mud-and-wattle hut, seven-year-old Fayima Alayisa Nabirye gapes at me.
I feel her eyes on me. When I turn to look at her, she giggles and lowers her gaze. We do this continuously. We are not alone. There is a gaggle of children around us, some dressed in tatters. Behind the hut is a semi-permanent two-room structure, and beyond it, a garden. Chicken roam about.
Women, carrying empty yellow jerry cans, stop to chat with Zubairi Bikinge, Nabirye’s father. They are going to the well. It is another late afternoon in Namalumba village, Matumu sub-county, Kamuli District.
There are two things you will notice. First, Nabirye’s chin remains close to her chest. Second, she never lets go of her father’s hand. While she sits on his lap, she closes her eyes and rubs the tip of her nose on Bikinge’s cheek. It seems she cannot get enough of the smell of him.
On the morning of November 17, 2016, Bikinge, 34, was away – in Jinja town – when Nabirye, a Primary Two pupil at Kasozi Primary School in Bukwanga village, Namasagali sub-county, almost died. She was living with her grandparents.
At about 6am, her grandfather, Badilu Batwawula, went to the garden. He left four children in the hut, sleeping on one mattress; the oldest was Nabirye’s 18-year-old aunt. Nabirye was sleeping nearest to the wall. The aunt also left the hut to answer nature’s call. She spent about 10 minutes in the latrine.
“When she returned, the children were covered in blood,” Bikinge says, adding, “My brother, who slept in another hut, was preparing to go to the well. She called him. She was crying but could not talk. On entering the hut, my brother discovered that while the other two children were still alive – but asleep, Nabirye’s throat had been slit. Her blood spluttered on others.”
Nabirye’s windpipe and esophagus had been raptured. It seems the witchdoctor had collected some blood and had intended to cut off her head, but her aunt’s footsteps startled him into flight. Such was his haste that he left behind a small purse full of knives.
“Nabirye lay lifeless. My sister’s alarm brought the neighbours who gathered outside the hut. Someone called me at 7am, saying my daughter had been beheaded. I think I lost my mind. Nabirye is my firstborn child. I had to find the strength to reach her.”
The police had arrived, but they also stood outside the hut. As people milled around the body, someone noticed the girl turning her head. In the taxi, Bikinge reviewed different strategies he was going to use to find his daughter’s head.
“I called home, and I was told Nabirye was being transported to (Kamuli General) Hospital. I asked where her head was and they said it was intact. She was alive. When I arrived at the hospital, the doctors were sewing her neck. I did not believe she would live.”
Living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Nabirye only eats soft foods and she suffers from constant headaches. She cannot sleep while facing down. “If she finds herself in that position she screams, ‘I’m falling into a deep pit!’” Bikinge says, adding, “I never leave her alone in a room. If I walk away, she screams. At least now, she plays with her peers.”
Bikinge has to return to work, but he is scared to take his daughter back to school, “The care may not be good. Children might try to pull her head up. How can they understand what she has been through? I need to find a school where teachers care about children.”
Innocently, Nabirye keeps asking her father when she will see her school friends again. Once in a while, the other children frighten her, telling her, ‘That is why you were cut. I will call the man to cut you again.’ It is only a game, but after hearing those words, she wants to hide. She is like a caged animal trying to find a way out. Her mood changes.
Psychosocial counselling for children, as part of trauma therapy, is a long process, but deep in the village, Nabirye has no hope of going through it. Her father does not even know what it means.
Immaculate Nabukeera Mutebi, a counsellor at Precious Real Moments, says therapy for Nabirye should involve her parents. “They have to understand what the child is going through, accept the situation, and train her to understand what abuse is and how she can avoid.”
At Kyampisi Childcare Ministries, counsellors and physiotherapists have worked on more than 200 children. “Some children have died, while others are heavily traumatised,” Ssewakiryanga says, adding, “From working with these children, our social workers sometimes suffer PTSD, especially when they are called to be witnesses in court. I have also been treated for PTSD.
Child sacrifice is a thriving business and I receive threatening calls from witchdoctors. I live in constant fear for my family.”
KCM has a partnership with police; they arrest, investigate and prosecute those suspected of engaging in child sacrifice. The unlikely victims of PTSD, who are often ignored, are the children of witchdoctors.
In most cases, they are unaware of their parents’ crimes but they are traumatised by them, shunned by the community, their property destroyed, and sometimes they flee the village.
What is being done?
Commissioner of Police who coordinates Anti-Human Trafficking Taskforce, Moses Binoga, says fighting crime is a multi-sectoral affair. “During community policing, the police talks about child sacrifice in the areas where it is prevalent, for instance, Rakai (District). Some NGOs have joined us and the ministry of Education and the ministry of Gender have policies on violence against children.”
In Nabirye’s case, a 35-year-old, a resident of Namisambya village, Kitayundwa sub-county was arrested after the villagers said he confessed to being a “head hunter” who had sacrificed a number of children. “When I went to Kamuli central police station two days later, he had been released due to lack of evidence,” Bikinge says. “Now, he has disappeared. I wanted to know why he cut my daughter. Did he want her head or blood? How long does it take a man to cut off a child’s head? He slit her throat three times. Why?”
As he lifts Nabirye’s head to show the cuts, she cringes in pain. The scar tissue is still raw. “Aunt, should I take her back to school?” Bikinge asks me. “Should I wait? But, I must go back to work.” I’m lost for words. It is clear that Bikinge is traumatised and he needs therapy.
Therapy for victims
Victims of PTSD experience severe emotional reactions to certain environmental stimuli that may remind them of a past traumatic event. They often relive the event in their dreams and even when awake, causing them to believe that they are currently at risk.
Most people find temporary comfort in repressing the tragic memory, but repression often leads for the memory to manifest into a worse form.
Typically, a type of therapy that is used to relieve the patient from symptoms of PTSD is called exposure therapy. The patient is to recount one traumatic memory, using vivid details to allow for the emotions to be re-experienced.
On the other hand, Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) is a therapy procedure that encourages the patient to detail his or her entire life, from birth to the present situation, while a therapist documents the process …
Through this, victims with PTSD are able to formulate a clear, coherent narrative, which mentally allows for the patient to overcome the repressive, disillusionments that haunt their daily lives.
The reality of child sacrifice
Nabirye is among the lucky few. A few miles away from Bikinge’s home, in December 2016, 12-year-old Jimmy Lubaale was lured by a witchdoctor who promised to pay him Shs10,000 daily for helping him mix herbs in his shrine. It is an offer few boys would pass up, but surprisingly, Lubaale’s brother, Joel Kiranda, rejected it.
According to their grandfather, when they found Lubaale’s body two weeks later, the head had been cut off and the chest area scooped out. There was no stench around the body. Such is the sophistication of some witchdoctors that they inject the bodies with Formaldehyde.
You would think that with the rise in child ritual murder, there would be a special policy to fight the crime. However, Commissioner of Police, Moses Binoga, who coordinates the Anti-Human Trafficking Taskforce, says, “It is true that ritual murder of children keeps on happening, but we do not treat it in a special way.
It happens like any other crime, such as murder and theft. There are laws under which the offenders can be tried, such as the Penal Code Act (1950) and the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act (2009).”
The few witchdoctors who have been arrested are being charged under the Penal Code Act, 1950. However, the loophole is that a witchdoctor can turn state witness against his accomplices (those who sought his services) after a generous offer from the prosecution. In most cases, this ‘generous’ offer involves immunity from prosecution.
Peter Ssewakiryanga, executive director, Kyampisi Childcare Ministries (KCM), an organisation that rehabilitates survivors of child sacrifice, says to counter this loophole, some of the accused are now being tried for aggravated trafficking – which carries life imprisonment upon conviction – under the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act 2009.
“Anyone who aided or made a phone call to help the witchdoctor will be charged,” Ssewakiryanga says.
He adds, “We are now appealing that all cases tried under the Penal Code Act be amended to latter Act through expeditious hearings.”
Two years ago, KCM petitioned the parliamentary Committee on Gender, Labour and Social Development about rampant child sacrifice. Eventually, the committee came up with a report of the Sectoral Committee on Gender, Labour and Social Development on a petition by the Former Students of International School of Uganda on Child Sacrifice and Ritual Murder, which was tabled before Parliament but never discussed.
It gives nine recommendations, among which are the expediency of the National Action Plan against Child Sacrifice currently under review, and the amendment of the Witchcraft Act, 1957. The Act should be amended to address the issue of child sacrifice.
The number of children sacrificed is rising. Very few parents report to the police. Annual Report on the Trend of Trafficking in Persons in Uganda, 2013, only 12 suspected human sacrifices were registered, 10 of which involved children as victims.
Ten suspects were arrested, seven taken to court, and by the end of the year, only one had been convicted.
Source: Healing Through Story: The Effectiveness of Narrative Exposure Therapy for the Treatment of PTSD in Ugandan Ex-child soldiers